When we visited the island of Lewis this summer, there were language issues!

While the preservation of minority languages and culture is, one has to presume, valuable, I am sceptical of a policy which displays Edinburgh street names in prominent Gaelic and tiny English.       In the Republic of Ireland their policy on having Irish Gaelic as an official language seems to work far more successfully.   Irish Gaelic is taught in mainstream schools;  some items on the national news will be in Gaelic, and a higher proportion of the population actually speak it.    But in Scotland with its population of 5.5 million, speakers of Gaelic amount to around 50,000.   The website I looked up says that this population is scattered throughout Scotland but as I recollect it this is not the case and you will only hear it spoken in the far west highlands and the western isles of Scotland.   And that group who speak Gaelic also will speak fluent English to the last man or woman.

I speak as one whose grandparents spoke this Gaelic as their first language, and my grandfather was a poet and songwriter in Gaelic.     I have been told that the cadence and phraseology of my English has been influenced by the structure of Gaelic, but I have no way of knowing this.   But things move on, and personally given the time and effort required to learn a language, I cannot see the point if less than 1% of the population speaks it.

Lewis also has its signing (where it has signing at all) in large Gaelic letters and tiny English ones,  but with the declared intention of eradicating English altogether.   As a tourist you do not feel warmly welcomed in Lewis.

We visited the Standing Stones at Callanais.  This is my third visit, and each time I am struck with the powerful feeling that it is not ‘right’ – in the sense that the original placing of the stones has been tampered with;  however it is still worth  a visit and the actual stones themselves are very beautiful  and  curiously evocative.   In the middle of the monument is an incongruous burial chamber, now open.   During our stay we visited the stones en masse, and later we returned, just John and me and the girls, whom we took out for the day to give their parents a short  well-earned break.

On that occasion a party of about a dozen were squatting in the burial pit, conducting some obscure ritual of their own devising.   There was a guru/self proclaimed leader, and acolytes who made responses, and lesser votaries whose role seemed to be restricted to saying Om in a ceaseless and annoying monologue.   This was irritating, but of course each to his own.   However, when they continued to occupy the central position for all the time that we remained there, denying other people access to the centre of the monument and showing no signs of closure or of sharing the sacred space with other travellers, we became annoyed.   The last straw was that the language being employed was German.

I said to John:  I’m going to stand in the centre of the circle and tell them – in English! that in their selfish monopoly of the stones  they will offend the spirit of the place and that they should consider their position lest the displeasure of the Great Mother falls upon them.   John agreed that no doubt I could call down the wrath of the goddess upon them, but recommended I did not attempt it as I was too exhausted to be High Priestess that day.   He however stepped right up beside them, photographed the monument (and them) and loudly said Om and Em and Um in different and opposing notes.   The guru looked thunderously displeased, John reported, and considered reprimanding him, but as John looked steadily at him across the barrel of his camera, the Teutonic new age priest thought better of it.   When we left, they were still squatting and om-ing.

But the funniest incident in the entire trip was at a very nice cafe at the Black House village where we stopped for some lunch.    There was only the cook and one young girl waiting and the place was rapidly filling up.   A party consisting of parents and two children arrived.  When the waitress approached him, the man said, Vous avez un menu francais?   We had difficulty in concealing our laughter.   Was he kidding?   They barely had a menu in English!   But he ploughed on, speaking only in French (much as we do in English in other countries).   Was he a member of the French as a Common Language Society?   Did he think Gaelic was an ancient version of French?   Was he simply echoing the behaviour of the natives in forcing a language no-one spoke upon everyone?   Was he stupid?  Or merely French?   Anyway, by the time the harassed waitress escaped from them, there wouldn’t have been a vote for the EU in the entire establishment!

English forever!

The definition of a lady.

I haven’t written anything for about a month, and if you received any odd blogs or ones which you know you saw but then vanished, it’s because Joanna was patiently trying to teach a remarkably inept and slow pupil how to post own photograph in blog.    The photograph at the bottom is all my own work – only problem is I have no idea how I did it!    I’ll try to include one over the next few weeks so I get used to the process.

We’ve been in Scotland, visiting on our tour the place of my mother’s birth where we scattered her ashes.    Although I wrote an account of this event, I think this should remain private to ourselves.

We had no instructions from my mother, but I think she would have approved, as in John Galsworthy’s poem:

Scatter my ashes!

Hereby I make it a trust;

I in no grave be confined,

Mingle my dust with the dust,

Give me in fee to the wind!

Scatter my ashes!

In my remarks, however, about my mother, I said how difficult it was to capture her subtle and elusive qualities, and I fell back, unlikely though it seems on the magnificent reply of the future King Edward VII when someone criticised his wife.   “The Princess of Wales,” he reproved them, “is a lady, and therefore she never does anything mean or small.”

I thought that an excellent description of what it is to be a lady.   It’s nothing to do with etiquette, wealth, rank, social category.   Not every Princess of Wales has been a lady.   When my mother taught me the etiquette of middle class life : how to set a table, for example;   in what precedence guests should be seated round a table;  the traditional way to serve a dish – she generally prefaced her remarks by saying, “All this is of little account, for good manners is just about being kind to other people, but it is useful to know what ought to be done, so that you can choose not to do it.”

I think mothers who are bringing up girls should have the motto painted in their halls.   A lady never does anything mean or small,

It is by no means always easy to achieve either.   This past week my eldest daughter and her children have been with us on holiday and one day we did a tour of the charity shops.   I spotted a grey wool jacket which I rather liked, with a fairly good label, but it was quite a small size, so I suggested my eldest grand-daughter try it on.    It suited her (almost everything does) and I bought it for her.   She was delighted with it.   But when we got home and I tried it on, it also fitted and really suited me.    Whereas on her it looked funky with jeans, on me it looked classic with a black dress.   My granddaughter with great generosity offered to surrender it to me , saying I would have more opportunity to wear it, and for one shameful moment I was tempted.   Then I asked myself, how mean and small are you going to be?   A gift once given cannot be rescinded:  it is freely the property of the recipient.   Also, was I going to play David to her Uriah the Hittite?   How many jackets did I own, in comparison with my grand-daughter?   So I suggested she model it with different selections from her wardrobe, recommended another styling of her hair, and left her securely in possession of her jacket.    It is not easy to live up to Queen Alexandra’s ‘never’ lapsing into anything mean or small.

I was saying that my mother’s counsel always was to be kind;  to be generous;   to give the benefit of the doubt;  to forgive (and I with my vengeful anger and long memory had much need of that counsel).   My father was a clever and unusual man.   He understood the kind of person I was, and he advised me how to hone my skills in order to best defend myself and pursue my own interests;  whereas my mother gave me advice on how not to cause too much damage, both intended and collateral,  to other people.

I am grateful to my parents for their thoughtful and tireless efforts to educate us in the widest sense, and it must have seemed (certainly in my case)  at times a thankless  and forlorn cause.   But they persevered, and here I am today, still trying and not always managing, never to do anything mean or small.

2013-08-11 12.11.55 (1)


Jeri on sofa Mannfield Avenue 1967 (4)

I’ve been following my friend Jane Coleman’s lovely blog of her sojourn on the Western Isles (colemanje.56.wordpress.com).

My maternal family came from the island of Lewis.   My mother came to The Mainland at the age of 14, and was more or less a permanent exile and ex-islander all her life.   I have visited Lewis twice, once with my mother when I was a teenager, and once with John and all five children when mine were still quite small.   I remember the strangeness of the Standing Stones at Callanish and an absolutely magnificent day on an utterly empty glorious beach on the Atlantic coast, complete with the horned island cattle, when Kerri my stepdaughter was swept away on an undercurrent and John only just managed to catch her.

Island life has never appealed to me (too small, too watched).    However I am looking forward to making a third visit this summer, when a massed gathering of the island’s descendants through my mother and my aunt will gather on its shore.     There will be ten of our number who have a blood connection to that place, none of whom have ever lived there.    We will return to the island the ashes of one of its own.

But when Jane of the lovely blog last visited here we were discussing Rodel, a harbour at the Southern tip of the Lewis/Harris  island which my mother and I had visited during our holiday there.   We stayed in a bed and breakfast where the food was very good even by my mother’s exacting standards.   My father had driven us to Ullapool from where we had sailed, and he came back for us but he declined to go, never having any time for holidays.  (What would I do? he would ask.)    We enjoyed as we often do, glorious weather during our trip, apart from that one day when we elected to go to  Rodel.   Jane was reminding me that it has a mediavel church of some interest but I had forgotten that.

My mother and I took the bus down, leaving behind the flat ‘macher’ (flower filled marshy meadow) of Lewis and came down  through the mountains of Harris with everything shrouded in mist and ‘small rain’.    I don’t recall anything at all about the port and village except that exploring them in this fine but penetrating ‘mist’ took no time at all and we then had several hours to dispose of before the return bus going North in the evening.

My mother said, we’ll just have to go and have lunch in the hotel.   There was only one hotel in Rodel, a sturdy large rambling building made of grey stone.   There was no clear entrance and we picked our way round the outskirts, until eventually we came across a door that opened to our push.

We found ourselves in an unkempt bar.   A profound silence fell as the occupants – perhaps half a dozen men seated at different tables – all stared at us.   There was a rough sort of bar, unattended.    The men looked at us as though we were interlopers from another planet.    No-one said a word.   We had come in out of the rain and the door clicked behind us.   After what seemed like the longest few seconds I have  ever experienced, one man bawled out, ‘Dougie!’    Steps sounded in a passageway and another door was opened and a dark head popped round.   “You’ll have to be getting Mary,” said the same man, gesturing with his thumb at us.

The whole man materialised from behind the door  the better to stare at us, as though we were a rare sight.   Then, without a word, he disappeared and his steps could be heard fading away.

“Let’s go,” I whispered to my mother.

“Wait,” she said.  “There’s no-where else and we have to eat something.”

The men withdrew their gaze from us but the silence continued.

Minutes passed, and then the door re-opened to admit a stout elderly lady, dressed entirely in black and with a face as sombre as her raiment.    These people did not seem to have t he power of speech, for she looked at us but said nothing.

“We were wondering,” my mother said, “whether we might have lunch?”

“Lunch?” repeated Mary, as though they’d never heard of such  a thing.

My mother nodded.  (This place appeared to rob everyone of the powers of speech.)

Mary looked at us for a long time , and finally said, “Will sandwiches be sufficient?”

In truth we had been hoping for something hot, but there did not seem to be much likelihood of that.    My mother nodded her agreement.  The men were again watching with interest.

“It’ll have to be chicken.” said Mary.

“Chicken would be very nice,” replied my mother.

Mary looked at us again, first at my mother and then with definite disapproval at me (mini-skirt, and not as tractable as my mother.)   Then she informed us, as though we had committed some grave faux pax, “And if you will be so kind as to follow me, I will conduct you to the Ladies Parlour.”

We followed.     As we trailed along slowly in her wake, we began to feel the house was like a tardus.   All was in darkness and our guide switched on lights as we went.   We climbed stairs, we walked along passages, we descended stairs.   I began to wish I had crumbs I could scatter like Hansel and Gretel.   Eventually, Mary opened a   creaking door and bid us enter a shaded room.   She herself crossed the floor and opened the heavy curtains and we were looking at the oddest room I had, at that tender age, ever seen.

There were faded but beautiful rugs.   The seating was heavily carved wooden chairs and sofas, piled high with colourful cushions.   Three large wooden elephants of decreasing size, though the smallest would have supported a child, took up quite a lot of space although this was a large room.   Glass-fronted cabinets were full of exotic items – carved wood, fans, silver, brass, boxes.   There were portraits of foreign ladies, dressed in saris, fading on the walls.   A tiger skin sprawled before the fireplace.   I cannot describe how astonished we were to find this den of the exotic Orient in a grey hotel on the Western Isles.

“If you will be so kind as to wait here, I will fetch the refreshments,”  stated our companion.

“Very well,” said my mother.   Mary turned and with her slow, sedate step left  the room, closing the door behind her.   Her footsteps receded in the corridor and silence fell once more.

I got up and tried the door handle.   It was not locked, although the windows were all screwed down and we were on an upper floor.   The room had a fine view.

“This is the oddest room I’ve ever seen in my life,’ I said to my mother, while examining my reflection in a spotted and distorting  mirror.

“Some owner has  gone to India and made a fortune and shipped all this stuff back home.”

“We’ll never be able to find our way out,” I said.

Since my mother did not say, ‘Don’t be silly,’ as she might have done, it was clear she was as uneasy as myself.   We waited.

We waited for a long, long, long, long time.   I left to my own devices would have lit out for freedom several times and at least made an attempt to make it back to the sunlit lands.   My mother however insisted the dark dame would return.   So we waited and waited.

Eventually, far off,  I could hear her slow footsteps returning.   I told my mother, who just nodded as though she had never doubted it.

The old woman’s progress was very slow and when she opened the door we saw she was carrying an enormous wooden tray.   My mother directed me to help, but any assistance was disdained.   The carved wooden tray was laid on a brass table beside my mother.

“Will  you be requiring the Ladies’ Room before eating?” Mary enquired of my mother who shook her head.

“Then,” she continued, pointing to an embroidered bell pull, “if you will be so good as to be pulling that bell pull, I will return and escort you to the Ladies’ Room.”

“Thank you,” said my mother.  I wanted to ask for a map, but didn’t.

When Mary’s footsteps died away, my mother whsked the cloth away.   There was another surprise.   A large  teapot, smothered in a teacosy with embroidered flowers we’d never seen , was  heavily encrusted with gold ornamentation;    but it was full of hot and very welcome tea.   There were linen napkins.    And a large plate of dainty sandwiches – fresh bread, moist chicken and mayonnaise.  Two pieces of delicious home made fruit cake and two shiny apples completed our feast.    We fell upon it and devoured it all.   Everything was delicious.

When we were finished, we put everything tidily back on the tray.   When the cloth was in place my mother pulled the bell pull.   We heard no ring.   I said to my mother – after a delay – she should pull again but she said it would be rude to harass the old lady.   Eventually the slow steps returned.

“That was just what we were needing,” said my mother.

“Och aye,” said Mary who clearly didn’t fraternise with strangers.  My mother directed me to carry the tray, but Mary would have none of that.   We followed her back to quite near the bar, where she showed us a modern ladies’ cloakroom.   When we came out, she was standing in the corridor.

“How much do we owe you?” enquired my mother.   Mary named a modest sum.   My mother paid handsomely.   Mary was about to go fetch change, but my mother  waved that away.

“I’ll let you out here,” said Mary, unbending a fraction, “so you’ll not be having to go through the Public Bar.”

We emerged into the light.

“That was a strange place,” I said to my mother.

“I’d never heard of it,” said my mother with sight surprise, for on an island everybody has generally heard everything about anybody.

I haven’t forgotten Rodel.   I might just go back this summer but after all this time and all my own travels, in the interim,  I’m sure the extraordinary impact it had on me will not be repeated.  (If indeed it still exists.)

(The photograph of Jeri is from about the time that we took that holiday in Lewis, and was taken by Eugene.)